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Knicks-Nets game becomes a tribute to Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant is remembered prior to the start

Kobe Bryant is remembered prior to the start of a game between the Knicks and the Nets at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The moment of silence lasted 24 seconds on the clock superimposed on the video screen above the court at Madison Square Garden, lit from above by purple and gold spotlights to honor Kobe Bryant.

And the fans dutifully remained silent through it, with not a sound heard throughout the arena. But when the clock ticked off the final second to honor his No. 24, fans began to cheer and then chant “KO-BE! KO-BE!” loudly and rhythmically.

The players were introduced and then the chant rose again as the game began. The Nets won the tip, Spencer Dinwiddie dribbled out the 24-second clock and the Knicks did the same, all to honor Bryant.

The Garden again flashed the tribute image on the scoreboard, a picture of Bryant with simply his name and “1978-2020.”

When the tributes were over and the game began in earnest, the Garden seemed unusually quiet again, particularly for a game between these local rivals that usually would elicit loud derision aimed at the opposing fan base. But nothing seemed quite right as the teams took the floor hours after learning of the sudden passing of Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash.

Kyrie Irving arrived at the Garden and left. The Nets cited “personal reasons” for keeping him out of the game, which seemed more appropriate than listing it as “broken heart.”

The NBA closed all pregame locker rooms on this day, allowing the players time to come to terms with the loss. The players who spoke afterward talked about how they wondered if the game would even be played and, even before that, wondered if the story even was real.

“It was tough. It was almost time to play and guys were still figuring out what they were going to do,” Taj Gibson said. “We didn’t know if we were going to play. We didn’t know how the game was going to go, if they were going to postpone the game . . . We feel like we lost a superhero, man.”

“It’s difficult to even say,” Marcus Morris said quietly. “Superman is not supposed to die. And to us, he was Superman.”

But he wasn’t. Despite the greatness on the court, the presence as a global icon, Bryant was human and not Superman.

Perhaps that’s why it hit these players so hard. It wasn’t some elderly player they’d been introduced to or even the NBA commissioner, David Stern, whose tenure ended before many of them had joined the league. This was the player they’d grown up idolizing. He was their generation’s star, the Black Mamba.

“I thought they were going to get canceled, but the NBA, it’s a business, and I understand there’s probably logistical issues with arenas and things, so they chose not to,” Dinwiddie said. “You come to work. We’ve got a job to do, just like everybody else. I’m sure you guys have had to deal with tragedy before and still had to show up for work. That’s what they called on us to do tonight.”

Julius Randle played with Bryant at the tail end of Bryant’s career; Kobe's final two seasons in Los Angeles coincided with Randle’s first two seasons with the Lakers. Randle wrote, “Goat 24 Rest Easy Bro” on his sneakers.

Randle, who brings his young son with him to as many games as he can, hugged his child while sitting on the bench before the game, maybe just a little tighter this time. But after scoring 22 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in the Knicks’ 110-97 win, he left without speaking.

When Bryant played his final NBA game, throwing up 50 shots as teammates funneled the ball to him time after time, encouraging him to put on a show the way he had for 20 years, he was asked if this was the perfect ending.

“The perfect ending would have been a championship,” Bryant said. “That’s a perfect ending to me. Tonight was trying to go out playing hard and try to put on a show as much as I possibly could. It felt good to be able to do that one last time.”

There are very few perfect endings in sports and in life. The talents fade, players age and even the legend dims as they are surpassed.

Less than 24 hours earlier,  Bryant was passed by LeBron James for the third spot on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. But even if his playing days were over, Bryant’s ending seemed far off.

He’d become a mentor to young players in the NBA, to his daughters and to the kids who flocked to his Mamba Academies. When players of this generation put up posters on their walls of heroes such as Bryant, they also saw what he and James had worked toward in leadership, making better players and better people of young men and women.

“It’s funny because first, it’s not that I didn’t like him, but I wasn’t a big fan because of his attitude, you know?” Frank Ntilikina said. “But when you grow up and you know more about the game, you realize stuff, like you’ve got nothing but respect for this guy.

"When I was grown enough to understand, I just didn’t stop watching his tapes, his documentary and everything he was also off the court, the type of person he was. Yeah, he was just a killer, a killer. He was one of the best that ever played this game . . . For everything I said like how I was studying him, what he did allowed me to improve, but also as a man. I’m thankful.”

That was the ending that no one seemed ready for on this day.

Outside the Garden, the lights were changed to purple and gold just like the ones directed at the ceiling. And a fan put flowers in place outside.

Even if the Knicks and Nets faced each other in a matchup of struggling teams, it was moments like this, when history was being recalled, that the Garden felt like the Mecca again.

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